In the heat of summer, droves of Chicagoans head to Western Michigan in search of beaches, lake houses and sunsets.
But an hour inland you'll find a destination for all seasons: Kalamazoo, which has several claims to fame beyond its well-known name.
The Kalamazoo Mall was the first outdoor pedestrian shopping mall in the United States. Gibson Guitars, Upjohn Co. and Stryker all originated here. It's also home to three colleges and the largest junior tennis tournament in America.
But these days, KZoo is a nascent cultural center, bustling with its own craft-beer trail, shops, musicians and distinctive eateries. So consider making the two-hour-and-45-minute drive in winter. We spent some time in Kalamazoo during the last polar vortex and it was, in a word, enchanting. In a few words, it’s a great town with excellent beer and plenty to do.
Image via Rustica
Small farm produce dominates the menu at Rustica, a purveyor of locally grown, European-inspired cuisine. The menu is an amalgamation of French, Italian and Spanish with a topping of Michigander. Consider it comfortable fine dining in the heart of the KZoo. The chef de cuisine makes house-cured meats, pasta, stocks, soups, desserts and pickled vegetables daily from scratch, and the wine pairings are award-winning. It’s friendly, warm and a bit of a scene.
236 S. Kalamazoo Mall, Kalamazoo, MI
Image via Bell's
Drink: Craft Beer Trail
If you’re like me, craft beer can only be improved by competitive stamp collecting. And Kalamazoo is built for people like us. The Give a Craft Beer Trail program has 17 participating area breweries, including the likes of Arcadia Brewing Company, Bell’s, Final Gravity and Wax Wings. Collect stamps from all 17 stops to nab a T-shirt. Tapped out at eight? You’ll snag an official metal credit-card-sized bottle opener. Make it to less and, well, there really are no losers in this game. Looking for someone else to do the planning and handle transport? Hop on the Kalamazoo brew bus and they’ll responsibly courier your party from one watering hole to the next.
Not looking to commit to a full beer pilgrimage? Make your only stop Bell’s Brewery. Their Two Hearted Ale was named the best beer in America.
Stay: Radisson Plaza Hotel
The Radisson downtown is the area’s best. The 340-room upscale, conference hotel has four restaurants (try Zazios) and a surprisingly large pool (complete with hot tub and waterfall). The central location puts you in walking distance of the other must sees on this list. Book a room on the Concierge Floor to enjoy breakfast and drink coupons throughout your stay.
100 W Michigan Ave, Kalamazoo, MI
Also check out: Kalamazoo House Bed & Breakfast
Image via Kalamazoo Nature Center
Hike: Kalamazoo Nature Center
For those looking to get their heart pumping, pack some winter gear and hit the trails. The Kalamazoo Nature Center maintains 16 trails ranging from easy quarter-mile strolls to more expansive 2.5-mile treks. The half-mile Raptor Ridge hike offers overlooks at two points, one of Trout Run Stream and the other of the Kalamazoo River Valley. Eyes to the sky, it’s raptor country. Bonus: after the hike, step inside the Nature Center to thaw out in the three-story tropical rainforest.
Also check out: Asylum Lake Preserve Trail
Image via the Gilmore Car Museum
The city has plenty of museums and cultural institutions, so no matter the audience, you’ll find something to fit your group’s tastes. Drool over 500 automobiles (the oldest is an 1899 Locomobile Steam Car) at North America’s largest auto museum, the Gilmore Car Museum. Or ogle rare prints by Japanese publisher Shozaburo Watanabe in the just-opened exhibit at the Kalamazoo Institute of Art. Stroll through the abstract expressionism collection on your way out and then argue with your date over wine and cocktails.
Also check out: Kalamazoo State Theatre Built in 1927, the theater hosts big name acts. Chris D’elia is in town on February 23.
Main image via Bell's Brewery